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History, People, and Places Series: A City Dedicated to Youth and Recreation – with thanks to Superman!

in city hall/news
Safety Harbor's new fitness center addition to the Community Center, under construction. (Photo/Kathryn Malaxos)

In the mid-twentieth century, The Safety Harbor Spa was a luxurious winter haven for New York’s wealthy. Many guests got to know the workers and would request their favorite server or attendant year after year. In 1955 and for several years thereafter, one such visitor was Harry Donenfeld, owner of DC Comics, publisher of Superman.

[Photo/Laura Kepner]

Longtime resident Betty Lou Douglas, recalls being a teenager in Safety Harbor in the late 1950s. “Harry Donenfeld somehow found out there was nothing for us to do,” she said. “He may have gotten to know some of our parents who worked at the Spa.

We would walk from one end of town to another—we just hung out. Maybe he felt sorry for us. We were pretty much on our own.”

Whatever his reasons, Donenfeld donated funds to build a youth center. The 70’ x 30’ concrete block building was located close to where the Rigsby Recreation Center now stands, on 2nd Street North. “It faced sixth,” Douglas recalls, “it was located where the retention pond is now.”  

In April, 1957, the Safety Harbor Herald claimed the opening ceremony had “one of the largest crowds in the history of Safety Harbor.”

“We had to find the money to make it nice inside,” Douglas said.  “Seems to me we painted it turquoise and black. There was a lady in town named Carmel Creach. She got the idea that all of us kids could participate in a lip-synch to old songs. It was called Sentimental Journey. We made money. We bought a stereo system, a ping pong table. Our parents made the costumes. It was so good they booked us to go to the Clearwater Yacht Club. We even got to meet Guy Lombardo.” 

It cost a dime to get in to the youth center and the parents chaperoned. “You had to sign in and sign out,” recalled Douglas. “You were allowed to sign in and out twice. After your second sign-out, you could not get back in, and parents could always look at those books.

“We were very safe, but everybody knew your business. My two nieces grew up here. One is now back and she has two boys. Their lives are very much like I had,” she said. “They ride their bikes; they go to the pier to fish.”

Donenfeld continued to support the center and he even mailed comics from time to time. People who remember the youth center recall when he made a surprise visit. He apparently walked into a board meeting and donated the money for a new, larger TV set so the kids wouldn’t ‘ruin their eyes’.

Youth opportunities have expanded since then.

Now, sixty some years after Harry Donenfeld took an interest in Safety Harbor’s youth, the City employs a large staff dedicated to encouraging residents to take advantage of the opportunities that promote active lifestyles. Today, residents enjoy a community center, a recreation center, numerous parks and a thriving library.  In fact, the community center will soon house a fitness center that will be approximately 2,000 square feet of workout area. Equipment will include cardio, strength training, and free weights.

In an email, Shannon Schafer, Safety Harbor’s Recreation Superintendent, wrote, “The Fitness Center is a product of our commitment to our Health goal in keeping our residents active. Participants can also seek consultation from one of our staff for an orientation of the equipment or sign up with a personal trainer to create a more individualized plan to meet their fitness goals. 

 “The new addition will be open seven days a week and we will have daily, monthly and annual rates. The annual rate breaks down to only $.28 / day for residents of Safety Harbor.  The hours are flexible to meet a variety of participant schedules.”

The targeted date for the grand opening is November 16th  from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm.

There have been many changes with our recreational opportunities over the past sixty years but maybe it all started thanks to a real-life  Superman.

Note: A portion of this article was first published in REAL Magazine in fall, 2017.

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